Vannoy Streeter's wire art: Humble beginnings, legacy carried on through family

Vannoy Streeter
Posted at 6:00 PM, Feb 01, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-01 21:05:54-05

WARTRACE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A Middle Tennessee town is the homeplace of an artist who took the most common of household items and created stunning works of art. On this first day of Black History month, we're taking a look back at his life. It's a story of humble beginnings and a legacy that continues today.

"Looks like they stayed with the horse theme," smiled Rod Cleveland, walking through downtown Wartrace.

For much of his life, he's told a story. It begins in Wartrace. It involves a man, an old railroad, and wire clothes hangers. The story is about Cleveland's grandfather, Vannoy Streeter.

Streeter spoke to NewsChannel 5 in 1992. People were bringing him clothes hangers and Streeter was making wire sculptures nothing short of amazing.

"It's a habit I can't quit," Streeter chuckled in his 1992 interview. "That's the way I see it. Just a habit."

"Tennessee Walking Horse!" he said, pointing to one sculpture made from wire. "Anything I see I can make."

"There's the airplane," he said, holding up another piece, turning his attention to all the details. "There's the bathroom. There's the commode. There's the roll of toilet paper right there. That's the pilot, co-pilot."

It's intricate work with simple beginnings.

"I think he said that was his first job, running the tracks, checking for cows, checking for debris, checking for down trees," said Cleveland, walking along the side of a railroad. "When [my grandfather] was young, he had brothers and sisters. They were poor. When they would see toys in the window, they knew they couldn't buy them. He decided, 'well, I'll make them.' He'd get wire from the old barns or maybe pick it up along the railroad tracks, and he'd make toys for his brothers and sisters."

Streeter's friends and fans include Frances Bates, president of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Museum.

"Very detailed thought process," Bates said. "It was just fascinating to watch him."

"He would say, 'I'm just working wire!'" added Billy Phillips, owner of Bluebird Antiques and Ice Cream Parlor in nearby Bell Buckle.

"We'd just sit and talk, and he'd just twist that wire while we were talking," said Tennessee poet laureate Margaret Britton Vaughn. "Wouldn't even look down. Just twisting."

"This is his Model T and when you turn the steering wheel, it actually turns the wheels," said Phillips, holding up one of Streeter's wire pieces.

"That is a horse-pulled hearse with a casket with a wire body in it that slips into the hearse," added Bates.

"This is Tina Turner," smiled Phillips, holding up another wire piece. "She's not only holding a microphone with high heels, she has her infamous fringe skirt like she was rolling on the river in."

"The good Lord gives different people gifts," said Vaughn. "He could just take wire and make magic."

Streeter was too humble to call any of what he did folk art.

"Well, what do you say it is?" the interviewer asked in 1992.

"Nothin'," Streeter answered. "Just a bunch of nothing. Just time killing."

He'd even say anyone could take clothes hangers and create art, but not everyone agrees with that statement.

"Lord, no, honey!" said Vaughn.

"Oh no, I wouldn't dare," Bates continued.

"Absolutely not," smiled Phillips. "If you've ever tried to bend a coat hanger, it's almost impossible."

There is someone who inherited the talent. It's Streeter's grandson, Cleveland.

"He'd be working and say, 'sit down there, I'll learn you something,'" Cleveland remembered from his childhood. "Evidently, I did learn something from him. He said, 'boy, you know how to do it. I'm not makin' you nothing else. If you want a horse, you'll make it.' When I start a piece, I just figure out what I wanna make, and I start with a frame. I'll build on that."

Carrying on the family tradition, Cleveland's pieces have only gotten more elaborate.

"This is a Arleigh Burke destroyer for the US Navy," Cleveland said, holding up a large piece made out of clothes hanger wire. "I'm hoping that wherever [my grandfather] is, he's proud of what I'm doing. I think he's probably getting a laugh out of it, a kick out of it."

Vannoy Streeter died in 1998.

In his lifetime, he was never a rich man. He charged very little for his work, often $20, $30, or $40 dollars. Things have changed over the years. A Vannoy Streeter piece today can be worth hundreds, even thousands of dollars.

He is not forgotten. A grandson tells his story, not just through words but through wire. Bates has some pieces at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Museum. The window of Phillips' Bluebird Antiques and Ice Cream Parlor is now filled with Streeter's pieces through Sunday, February 8.

"This is a poem called, 'Vannoy Streeter, A World of Wire,'" read Vaughn. "He knew not what he left behind, art that would last in time. A quiet man unassuming held wire that was blooming. Twisted wire from his art, bent images from his heart. He's in heaven where angels sing, twisting coat hangers to make angel's wings. God made our world to turn with bliss, Streeter made ours with a twist."

"I wanted to make pieces, and I wanted to keep him alive, I guess," said Cleveland. "I guess it's turned into now I'm telling his story."

For more on Rod Cleveland's work, visit here.

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